A mother's anger at a plea deal for her son's killer may push lawmakers to increase the penalty for second-degree murder by five years or more.
The change could lead to fewer capital murder cases and thereby save the state millions in indigent defense costs, which have climbed dramatically in recent years.
The state's district attorneys association has gotten behind a campaign that would place second-degree murder in the second-highest felony classification, just under the category that includes first-degree murder, which carries a death sentence or life without parole.
Under current law, a second-degree murder conviction carries a minimum sentence of nearly eight years in prison. The maximum is 32 years and eight months. Moving the crime up to the next level would create a minimum of 12 years and a maximum of life without parole.
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Second-degree murder is defined as the willful killing of another person without premeditation, and not in conjunction with another serious crime. A typical example would be a person shooting someone in a fit of anger.
Jim Woodall, president-elect of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said the legislation would beef up what he and other prosecutors see as a weak punishment for the crime. Woodall said the change also might result in fewer expensive capital murder trials. A recent study found the costs for indigent capital defendants in North Carolina have grown by 53 percent during the past seven years. Prosecutors might be more willing to file second-degree murder charges if the penalty is tougher.
But defense attorneys and their supporters in the legislature may not go along with a stiffer sentence unless changes are made to the capital murder law. They contend the capital murder law is too broad, creating the potential for those with severe mental illness or those who are unknowing accessories to a murder to face execution.
The campaign for a tougher second-degree murder penalty came about when Mary Lyons, a high school assistant principal in Edenton, persuaded state Sen. Ed Jones, a Halifax County Democrat, to draft the legislation. She also met with representatives for the conference of district attorneys.
Three years ago, her son, Philnando O'Neal, 24, was found dead outside an apartment building in Winston-Salem. He had been strangled, pushed out of a second-floor window and dragged into woods nearby. A plastic bag was tied around his head.
Police initially charged Aaron Jarrett, 40, with first-degree murder.
But in June, Forsyth County prosecutors told Lyons they were offering a plea deal of second-degree murder and armed robbery.